But that paragraph, of course, doesn't fill a spot on Unseen Films. Let's give it a stab like this:
Motion picture comedy is one of the great human unifiers and at the same time separates us into distinctive, passionate groups. Ask any aficionado of comedy on the silver screen to choose a favorite: the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, or the Marx Brothers? (For me, nothing beats the Bros. Marx.) Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, or Hope and Crosby? (I'd travel with Bob and Bing on the Road to Anywhere.) Of the three great silent clowns, who floats your boat: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton? And for me, it's got to be Buster.
I first grew to appreciate the works of all three of these silent geniuses thanks to a series of three documentaries by Thames Television that have run on PBS and TCM: Unknown Chaplin (1983), Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989) and Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987). All three of these documentary series are criminally out of print on DVD in the US (although the Chaplin and Keaton docs have been re-released in the UK, which is cause for hope in the States). Probably the best crash course for an eager new student of silent comedy, the Thames documentaries follow the lives and works of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd through extensive film footage (including much never-before-seen rehearsal clips, especially for the Chaplin bio) and interviews. These documentaries left me with an ever-after love for the three, but especially the brilliance and daring of Buster Keaton. Although his great masterpiece is generally agreed to be his Civil War picture The General, the moment I saw Keaton's The Navigator in full I fell immediately in love with it and we've been happy together ever since.
The Navigator builds upon Keaton's twin strengths: the ability to tug at your heartstrings and the astonishment of his incredible stunts, many of them so dangerous that these had gone wrong, we'd have a much shorter selection of Buster's films to appreciate. Like Chaplin and Lloyd, he made laughs out of prop comedy, but Keaton thought big: his props were a misbuilt house revolving in a hurricane (One Week), an immense train crash into a ravine (The General), or the astonishing simulation of a movie screen Keaton could jump into in Sherlock, Jr., a movie that features multiple Keatons in one single brilliant scene filmed using partial exposure for each take. This careful, calculated and groundbreaking discovery that the placement of the camera is as important in comedy as the actors themselves is one of Keaton's great innovations that inspires The Navigator.
At the same time The Navigator shows Buster's fascination with ships from his earlier comedy The Boat (1921)—probably the only silent comedy whose punchline is a verbal pun)—and the later (1928) Steamboat Bill Jr.. But while everything is bigger on the cruiser Navigator, Keaton's fine attention to detail grows even more important: he uses a big prop for sharp, targeted laughs.
There are, of course, sight gags galore straight from the beginning. Keaton absent-mindedly gives himself a bath while still in his robe, scrubbing the soap into his sleeves; he has his chauffeur drive him literally across the street to propose to the girl of his dreams, and, when rejected, refuses the ride back home:
The plot's relatively simple and might have well served as a P. G. Wodehouse story. Clocking in at a brisk 59 minute running time, it wastes little footage in getting to the meat of the story: Buster (his character's name is Rollo Treadwell, but it's impossible to think of him as anyone other than Buster) and his love interest Betsy (Kathryn McGuire) are set adrift at sea on the empty steamer Navigator, an actual ship purchased (for $25,000) for the filming of the movie.
Giving a technically innovative director like Keaton a toy this large and intricate results in classic sequences: without being aware that the other is on board, Keaton and McGuire run a perfectly timed chase around the decks of the ship, missing each other by sheer fractions of seconds every time.
Keaton, typical of the time's silent comedy directors, worked without a written script: routines and visuals would be worked out and honed in many ways. Keaton would have meticulously rehearsed on film many variations until he found the gag or the timing he wanted. I wonder at times what a genius like Keaton or Chaplin would have done with digital film: trimming the cost of multiple retakes by replacing film with digital data would have allowed them to hone and refine their sequences to their satisfaction and perfection without the spiraling costs of excess film stock and developing.
Two pampered socialites who have no idea how to feed themselves, much less running a ship, is a natural set-up for both visual and social gags: cooking, trying to steer a rowboat, shuffling a pack of water-logged cards and battling a collapsing deck chair are all among the challenges facing Keaton and McGuire, and of course, they slowly fall in love, despite Buster's inability to open a can of tinned milk (resorting to a hand drill)
or the perils of searching for candles
which turn out to be something quite more incendiary:
The most brilliant and awe-inspiring slapstick stunt sequence is an extended scene where Buster dons a diving helmet to fix the ship from underwater.
This is no special effect or stuntman: That's actually Keaton, actually underwater in Lake Tahoe, in water so cold he couldn't stay under for more than half an hour at a time. Just these few brilliant minutes of film (including a swordfight with a swordfish) took four weeks of filming.
In Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, narrator Lindsay Anderson says:
This was Keaton's most successful comedy. It put him with Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as one of the top three comedians.....with The Navigator, Keaton had reached the peak of his career. Its success ensured his independence. He was known and loved all over the world, and he was rapidly becoming as wealthy as the millionaire he portrayed.
It remains to this day one of the finest and most visually arresting silent comedies, one of the jewels in an entire coronet of Keaton's brilliant career. The Navigator is more than just a comedy; between brilliantly and intricately timed visual gags and pratfalls a genuinely touching love story unfolds aboard this creaky old ship, and Keaton is as adept at portraying that romance as he is in getting a laugh out of trying to chop open a can with a giant cleaver.
That's a few thousand words on a great film in which not a single word is spoken aloud. As I said at the beginning, a review is no substitute for experiencing The Navigator with your own eyes. You have no excuse not to: it's frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies, and a fine clean print was released on DVD from Kino. It's even up in its entirety on YouTube. Watch and be dazzled at the skill and human touch of Buster Keaton. The wonder is in not wondering how he did a visual, but that he did it so brilliantly.